The Line Between Health and Obsession: Muscle Dysmorphia?

April 4, 2013 | Kate Knappenberger

Muscle Dysmorphia

There's a line between health and obsession that some athletes come dangerously close to crossing. "Demand perfection" and "Do you think your competition is resting?" are two popular training statements meant to motivate athletes to never be content with their current fitness level.

Between professional athletes talking about their hours of daily training and the media inundating us with photos and videos of the "perfect" athlete body, it's no wonder that  athletes feel pressure to get "jacked." A commitment to the gym and other healthy habits is great, but it can spiral out of control. (See also Improve Health and Performance Without Hurting Your Game.)

In rare cases, athletes can develop a psychological condition known as muscle dysmorphia. Sufferers are usually involved in sports that stress size and strength, like football, wrestling and bodybuilding. Although they are quite muscular, they still see themselves as "too small," and they constantly think about food, dieting, training and their appearance. To reach their ideal body size and shape, people with muscle dysmorphia often turn to dangerous supplements and steroids. Interestingly, they never reach their ideal size and always have an area of their body that "needs work." (Protect Yourself Against Fitness Gimmicks With “Muscle Myths.”)

In an athletic training community based on competition, anyone is at risk for muscle dysmorphia. This is more than a misunderstood strong desire to be the best. It is a serious condition that if left untreated can lead to nutrient deficiency, injury, illness, and a host of side effects associated with taking harmful drugs and supplements.

One way to identify a person who may be suffering from muscle dysmorphia is to observe their behaviors and  the comments they make about themselves and their lifestyle.

A Person with Muscle Dysmorphia Might Say:

  • "I feel extremely guilty when I miss a training session or deviate from my diet."
  • "I spend a lot of time analyzing my body in the mirror."
  • "When I look at myself, all I see are areas that need improvement."
  • "I wear clothes that hide the areas of my body that I'm not happy with."
  • "I use many different muscle building supplements and/or steroids."
  • "I constantly compare myself and my body to others."
  • "I have missed work or family events because training is more important."
  • "My training and eating have interfered with my relationships with friends and family."
  • "I continue to exercise even with a serious injury, such as a broken bone."
  • "No matter how long I work out or diet, I'm never satisfied with my appearance."

Many individuals with muscle dysmorphia refuse to seek treatment from a mental health professional; therefore, it is important to try to prevent the condition from happening in the first place.

Muscle Does Not Make the Man

To reduce your chances of developing muscle dysmorphia, practice the following healthy behaviors:

  • Value your Health. It is more important than your performance and appearance. Don't let diet, supplements and training negatively impact your health.
  • Stop Comparing. Do not compare your body to others. Ignore pictures in the media that have been airbrushed to perfection. (Read Reduce Self-Imposed Demands to Improve Your Athletic Performance.)
  • No Body is Perfect. Recognize that successful athletes come in different shapes and sizes. Celebrate the experiences that your body has given you.
  • Turn your Focus Inward. Your outside appearance does not define the type of person you are, your athletic ability, or your character.
  • Find Support. Surround yourself with people who support you and make you feel good about yourself. Train at a supportive facility that emphasizes health over appearance.
  • Wear Comfortable Clothes. Buy clothes that make you feel good about the body that you have.

Muscle dysmorphia is psychological condition much different from eating healthy and training to build muscle. Learn to recognize the signs of muscle dysphorphia, and seek help from a mental health professional if you suspect you or a loved one is at risk. Since treatment is difficult, it's best to create an environment that prevents it from occurring in the first place. The best defense is a good offense.

Kate Knappenberger
- Kate Knappenberger, RD, CSSD, ATC, is an assistant professor and athletic trainer at Daytona State College (Daytona Beach, Fla.). She earned her master's degree in...
Kate Knappenberger
- Kate Knappenberger, RD, CSSD, ATC, is an assistant professor and athletic trainer at Daytona State College (Daytona Beach, Fla.). She earned her master's degree in...
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